The Soft Boys - Biography
By Oliver Hall
The Soft Boys were an English psychedelic band from Cambridge, the lifelong home of their guiding light Syd Barrett, whose madcap pop sensibility the Soft Boys artfully combined with the avant-garde blues rage of Captain Beefheart. Formed in 1976 and dissolved in 1981 by their leader, the renowned singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock, the Soft Boys coexisted uneasily with the English punk phenomenon; guitarist Kimberley Rew writes at his website that the 1978 show the Soft Boys opened for the Damned marks “the only time in my life I have ever attended a punk gig.” The audience for the Soft Boys’ brilliant recorded legacy has grown exponentially since the band split up, and the band now enjoys something like the legendary status it deserves.
In a 2007 interview with the Sundance Channel, Hitchcock reflected, “Time that I got the Soft Boys going, the whole psychedelic folk world was completely obliterated by the Maoist shock troops of the New Wave police. You know, the trail sort of ran out in the late 60s with the Byrds, and then maybe it got picked up again in the 80s with R.E.M. Like if you ever look at a map where there’s a river, but it goes underground for a bit, and then it comes up again—we were the point when the river went underground, or part of it. That’s how I see the place of the Soft Boys in rock history.”
While at art school in London in the early 70s, Hitchcock played in a band called the Beetles. After the Beetles fell apart, Hitchcock dropped out of art school and, in 1974, moved to Cambridge, where he busked, played at the Portland Arms folk club, and occasionally led the ramshackle groups Maureen and the Meatpackers and Robyn Hitchcock and his Worst Fears. In 1976 Hitchcock formed the band Dennis & the Experts with Cambridge guitarist Rob Lamb, who “lent” Hitchcock his rhythm section: Andy Metcalfe, a bassist with a bluegrass background, and Morris Windsor, a versatile drummer and harmony singer. Lamb quit the band in the last months of that year—Rew says by shouting through the keyhole of Hitchcock’s bedroom—but the loan of his rhythm section turned out to be less temporary than he had expected.
At the band’s first show with new guitarist Alan Davies, who had been given the distinctly Beefheartian name Wang Bo Trotter, Hitchcock changed the band’s name from Dennis & the Experts to the Soft Boys after the sci-fi characters in his new song “Give It To The Soft Boys.” Hitchcock has said that the band name was inspired by the radical writing of American author William S. Burroughs, whose cut-up novels include The Soft Machine and The Wild Boys.
The Soft Boys’ first release was the single “Give It To The Soft Boys” b/w “The Face Of Death” and “Hear My Brane” (Raw 1977). The EP Wading Through A Ventilator (Delorean 1985) added outtakes from the “Give It To The Soft Boys” sessions that include “The Yodelling Hoover,” the best rock song ever written about a vacuum cleaner (with respect to Frank Zappa’s oeuvre) and a wonderful showcase for the Soft Boys’ vocal harmonies, as well as the otherwise unavailable “Vyrna Knowl Is A Headbanger,” an early version of “Wading Through A Ventilator” with different lyrics directed at Hitchcock’s neighbor Vyrna Cole.
Towards the end of 1977, the Soft Boys saw an opportunity to acquire the Cambridge band the Waves’ powerful and inspired folk-rock guitarist, Kimberley Rew. They fired Alan Davies, who subsequently joined Rob Lamb’s new group Ducks on the Wall, and Rew joined the Soft Boys on lead guitar in January 1978. Stiff Records founder Jake Riviera’s new label, Radar Records, signed the Soft Boys that year. The Softs’ thrilling second single “(I Want To Be An) Anglepoise Lamp” b/w “Fatman’s Son” (Radar 1978) won the attention of the UK rock press. In the liner notes to the 1976-81 CD compilation (Rykodisc 1993), Hitchcock says of the single, “That was Radar’s idea. They released that one because it was power-pop. We thought the best one from that session was actually ‘Where Are The Prawns?’ but they released what they thought sounded closest to what other people might be listening to, rather than what we were good at doing.”
The Soft Boys recorded an album for Radar over two weeks at Rockfield Studios in Wales that remains officially unreleased aside from a couple of tracks that surfaced 15 years later on 1976-81, though the sessions have been bootlegged under the title The Day They Ate Brick: The Legendary Radar Sessions. Hitchcock later wrote that the Radar album is “‘legendary’ only because it was too bad to release.” From August to November 1978, the band recorded in Cambridge’s Spaceward Studios, located in the basement of the house where Rew rented a room. The Spaceward sessions resulted in the hard-edged, Beefheart-inspired debut LP A Can Of Bees (Two Crabs 1979), self-released by Hitchcock.
More Spaceward sessions between October 1978 and June 1979 eventually yielded the album Invisible Hits (Midnight Music 1983), released after the band had broken up. Partway through these sessions, Metcalfe quit the Soft Boys to join Telephone Bill and the Smooth Operators. Cambridge bassist Matthew Seligman, formerly of Shanks’ Pony and one of Alex Chilton’s bands, joined the Soft Boys in summer 1979 and appears on several songs on Invisible Hits. Initial pressings of Invisible Hits included a mailorder form for the now rare Live at the Portland Arms cassette (Midnight Music 1983), a recording of the Soft Boys live at the Cambridge folk club in 1978.
Underwater Moonlight (Armageddon 1980), recorded over the first half of 1980 for less than £600, is the Soft Boys’ masterpiece. The band laid down much of the album on 4-track at producer Pat Collier’s Alaska Studios, “located,” Rew writes, “in a dripping tunnel near London’s Waterloo station.” The rest of the album, aside from two (one account says three) songs recorded at Spaceward in 1979, was recorded at engineer James Morgan’s South London house on his 8-track machine in February 1980. The music on Underwater Moonlight manages to go in both of the Soft Boys’ favorite directions at once, achieving an aesthetic balance of the band’s tendency towards beautiful psychedelic folk-rock on one hand and unsettling avant-rock psychosis on the other. The album remains one of the best settings in Hitchcock’s catalog for the vivid surrealistic dramas that seem to be constantly playing in his imagination.
The Soft Boys played their last show in London in February 1981. The LP Two Halves For The Price Of One (Armageddon 1981) pairs a side of studio outtakes—among them “Only The Stones Remain,” the fantastic Kinks-like rave-up “There’s Nobody Like You” and the Softs’ faithful rendition of the Byrds’ arrangement of Pete Seeger’s “The Bells of Rhymney”—with a side recorded live at the Hope & Anchor and given the spoonerized title Lope at the Hive.
After the Soft Boys’ breakup, Hitchcock began a prolific career as a solo musician that continues to the present day. Rew, Seligman and Windsor all play on Hitchcock’s first solo LP Black Snake Diamond Röle (Armageddon 1981), and Hitchcock resumed playing with Metcalfe and Windsor in 1985 as Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, who persisted into the mid-90s. Meanwhile, Rew started a new version of the Waves called Katrina and the Waves, who had an enormous hit in 1985 with Rew’s cheerful “Walking On Sunshine.”
Rykodisc reissued A Can Of Bees, Underwater Moonlight and Invisible Hits in 1992. The excellent 2-CD compilation 1976-81 (Rykodisc 1993) opens with the Soft Boys’ first demo, recorded in Hitchcock’s living room in March 1977, and includes many, though by no means all, of the band’s best songs, including a previously unreleased version of Invisible Hits’ “Have A Heart Betty (I’m Not Fireproof)” with incredible guitar interplay between Hitchcock and Rew. The CD tray reproduces an indignant letter from one of Hitchcock’s neighbors (Ms. Cole?), addressed to “Mr Robyn Hitchcock, Rock and Roll Laboratory, [line redacted,] Cambridge,” which cites several acts of Parliament and Hitchcock’s education as reasons why the Soft Boys should not rehearse in the front room of Hitchcock’s house.
The Soft Boys reunited for a handful of shows in 1994 following the Rykodisc reissues. In 2001, Matador issued a 2-CD/3-LP expanded version of Underwater Moonlight including selections from the band’s rehearsal tapes from 1979-1980. The Soft Boys reunited for a US tour that spring that ended with an inspired performance at San Francisco’s Fillmore, where they dedicated “I Wanna Destroy You” to new US president George W. Bush, who still had many of his worst crimes ahead of him (“Well, of course nobody did vote for him, but he’s there anyways,” Hitchcock observed). The band toured Europe before recording the reunion album Nextdoorland (Matador 2002). Side Three (editions PAF! 2002) collects outtakes from the Nextdoorland sessions and a live track from the Fillmore show. The Soft Boys split in 2003 after further tours behind Nextdoorland. Matthew Seligman lives in Japan. Andy Metcalfe returned to playing bluegrass in the band Buffalo Smoke. Rew plays in the Cambridge R&B band Jack and maintains a website at www.kimberleyrew.com; Celine Dion (!) performs one of his Katrina and the Waves songs on Taking Chances (Sony 2007). Robyn Hitchcock’s current backing band, the Venus 3, consists of R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, Young Fresh Fellow Scott McCaughey on bass, and former Ministry/current R.E.M. drummer Bill Rieflin, who also collaborate in the Minus 5. Morris Windsor sings harmonies on Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3’s Goodnight Oslo (Yep Roc 2009).